What I wish I knew on the residency interview trail

I still remember the warm, fuzzy feeling of receiving my first few interview invitations. Unlike medical school, I received much more “love” from residency programs. Since I was part of the inaugural class of a new medical school, I interviewed for a lot of programs: 16 anesthesiology, six transitional years, and three preliminary medicine programs. After my first few interviews, it became apparent that most residency interviews tend to be more conversational and relaxed. Having now been on both sides of the table — as an interviewee and as an interviewer for my transitional year and anesthesiology programs, I wanted to share some advice with those of you about to embark on the interview trail.

Be professional

I cannot stress this point enough — professionalism needs to be first and foremost in your mind each time you correspond with programs. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to the program coordinator or the chair of the department, you need to be cordial and maintain a sense of common sense. You should expect that everyone you encounter may have an impact on your candidacy at a program and even in your career. In the grand scheme of things, your specialty is a small community and the impression you make on your colleagues — even those junior to you — may influence future opportunities. For example, I interviewed with a program director that later applied to be part of the ACGME review committee I serve on; I remembered my interaction with this individual and commented on it during the selection process. You never know how a connection could come back around and help (or hurt you).

Professionalism also applies to your online persona. Many applicants will make their social media accounts private or change their name to avoid being found through a Google search. While this approach during the interview season may hide inappropriate behavior until Match Day, you should take this time to review what you’re trying to hide. At any point in time, your friends/followers could have a screenshot of a post and share it with the administration. Anything you post online should be considered public. It’s better to be cognizant of what you’re posting ahead of time, rather than reactive. My application alluded to my blog and research in social media, so I did not hide any of my content, and online presence was a frequent topic of conversation during interviews. If you’re concerned about what you’ve posted, ask a faculty or staff member at your medical school to review it with you and help decide what the best approach is for your social media accounts.

Be prepared for a variety of questions

In anesthesiology, the interviews were very casual and conversational. I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that the same style is pervasive across most specialties. That being said, I encountered some unique questions while on the interview trail. Behavioral questions are targeted at elucidating your “soft-skills” and thus, can be challenging to address when caught off-guard. Many interviews will include some sort of question about how you handled a difficult situation or conflict, so be prepared with specific examples. Sometimes you’ll encounter “off-the-wall” questions such as brain-teasers — these are designed to see how you react under stress and to probe your approach to problem-solving. Typically the interviewer isn’t looking for a right answer, but your process for arriving at a solution. If you are faced with a tough question, do not be afraid to take a moment to gather your thoughts before proceeding. Jumping into a disorganized answer that rambles with no conclusion is worse than taking a few moments to organize your thoughts into a cohesive statement.

Research the program and interviewers

Prior to every interview, make sure you’ve read through the program’s website and look up specific strengths that align with your career goals. I knew I wanted to be at a large academic medical center for residency and looked for places that had challenging cases and patient populations. I also wanted to be at a bigger program. Ultimately I ended up getting more interviews than I could attend, so these guiding principles helped me decide which interviews to schedule and which to decline.

Many programs will give you a roster of who you will interview with either ahead of time or the morning of the interview. If you get the information in advance, it can be helpful to look up interests of your interviewers ahead of time to have specific questions on their areas of expertise.

Know your application

For some specialties, the interview season can run from October until February. Over the course of these few months, little details of your application may start to fade from your memory. While most interviewers will stick to conventional questions — why did you choose your specialty, discuss your research, and what do you do outside of medicine (hobbies section) — sometimes, an interviewer may be drawn to a seemingly insignificant 1-day volunteer experience you included or a project you did as an undergraduate. Make sure you’re still fluent in speaking on any part of your application prior to every interview.

Limit your time on SDN

I was guilty of stalking the Student Doctor Network (SDN) forums for information on what programs had sent interviews and the types of candidates that were receiving invitations. It became an obsession to check it for spreadsheet updates and discussion. While it can be helpful to know whether the radio silence from your top choice program is actually because they haven’t sent out invitations yet, at some point, checking SDN can have a negative effect. Make sure to be honest with yourself about how often you’re checking the forum and set limits for yourself. For example, at some point, I told myself that I would only check the forum in the evenings or if I had a specific topic to search for information on (e.g., discussion of a particular program I was going to interview at).

It takes two to interview

The interview season was a highlight of my fourth year — although it’s tiring and costly, it’s also an opportunity to check out new cities, learn about different programs and meet people in your specialty. Programs use interviews to get to know candidates, but the process goes both ways; you are looking for a residency that you will flourish at, so in many ways, you are also interviewing the program. Good luck and enjoy the process!

Amanda Xi is an anesthesiology resident who blogs at her self-titled site, Amanda Xiand can be reached on Twitter @amandasxi. This article originally appeared in Doximity’s Op-Med.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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